‘Shantaram’ looks nice, but the series never becomes excellent

Lately it seemed like AppleTV+ could only make great TV shows. After a less impressive start in 2019 with the messy but nevertheless quite popular The Morning Show, the streamer hits almost every time this year. With the oppressive psychological thriller Severancethe fun spy series Slow Horses and the beautiful Korean family epic pachinko as highlights.

Shantaram, which, like the last two titles, is based on a worldwide bestseller, has everything on paper to be added effortlessly to that growing list of impressive series. A well-known actor in the lead role (Charlie Hunnam, known for Sons of Anarchy), a huge budget and the ability to tell a layered story in multiple countries.

Shantaram is an adaptation of the semi-autobiographical novel by Gregory David Roberts, which was published in 2003 and has already sold 6 million copies. Like the book, the series tells the story of Australian bank robber Dale Conti (Hunnam) who escapes from prison in broad daylight in the early 1980s and flees to India with a false passport. In Mumbai, at that time still Bombay, he becomes Lindsay Ford (the name in the passport) and tries to disappear into the chaos of the metropolis.

Something that he does very badly. Not even halfway through the first episode, he ends up – at the invitation of a mysterious but beautiful expat – in a cafe that he describes in the voice-over as a place where hookers, dealers, gamblers and gangsters sit side by side. Dangerous people who “could kill each other at any time,” Linsday said. Yet he willingly associates with these people, despite his own drug history that led him to rob banks, and the enormous guilt he carries with him for the latter. It doesn’t take long before he has to run again.

Two failed attempts

This time he ends up in the slums of Bombay, in the hut of his local guide Prabhu (Shubham Saraf). There he decides to use his medical knowledge (before he robbed banks, he was an ambulance worker in Australia) to help the poor residents. A twist in the story that could quickly have gone wrong – white man ‘rescues’ poor residents of the slum. Fortunately, it is approached a little more nuanced, although the storyline does feel a bit cliché. A feeling that the series evokes on several occasions.

Ever since the book came out in 2003, attempts have been made Shantaram to get to the screen. After two expensive but failed attempts to make it into a movie, the rights were sold to AppleTV+ in 2018. But there too the filming of the book, which has nine hundred pages, did not run smoothly. After shooting the first two episodes, production was halted in 2020 because the path taken was too dark. A new showrunner, Steve Lightfoot (Behind Her Eyes), even had to be put on. Lightfoot claims to have started writing the script from scratch.

The series that debuted on AppleTV+ last week does indeed feel fairly light, despite the heavier topics. Even though Lightfoot didn’t quite manage to keep the twelve hours really interesting. After only three episodes, there are simply too many characters and not all equally interesting storylines to hold the attention. Even the fact that the muscular Hunnam – who really doesn’t show bad acting here often takes his shirt off – can’t save things.

The series looks beautiful, as we are used to from AppleTV+. But it never gets excellent.

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